Tuesday, April 7, 2015


It has been a difficult few days in Kenya. The siege and killings in Garissa in Northeast Kenya have been difficult for many to even contemplate. I talked to at least two friends today who essentially decided to spend their Easter weekend on news black-out, and I resonate with that inability to simultaneously experience fear, grief, horror, and sympathy, and to continue interacting with the world around us.

I had written a bit of this blog post last week, and in the spirit of continued interaction and a search for beauty in this world, I’ve finished it and will share. It focuses on our work with various community organizations and MCC staff.

Community work often involves reflection in a group setting to identify a community’s or organization’s assets, needs, and vision. During the last 6 months of work in Kenya, we have been involved in strategic planning within MCC and organizational visioning, training, and long-term planning with some of our partner organizations. As Selena and I were preparing to lead one of these sessions we found a guided poetry writing exercise and decided to try it.

The MCC Kenya staff played along with our unconventional opening to the day’s planning session, and voila, thirty minutes later, they each had written a poem. This group of Kenyan and North American community development workers seemed both surprised and pleased at the chance to read aloud a poem; for most ,it was the first one they had ever written.

The form is called pantoum, a centuries-old folk poem, for recitation or singing, and that involves a pattern of repeated lines. It is interesting to observe the placement of lines from earlier in the poem next to other lines later in the poem and to uncover new meanings from the arrangement.

Accessing these feelings and these other ways of thinking and imaging has been a wonderful and useful way to begin some of our trainings or planning meetings. It has been a meaningful and empowering reminder to MCC partners and staff that we all have beauty and wisdom to share.

While I was participating in a workshop a couple weeks ago the leader had us envision a time of being at peace or a time when all problems in our organization, family, church, or community were resolved. She then prompted us to write each line and led us through all of the twenty lines. The resulting poem, as an example, is below. Enjoy, and maybe give a try at distilling some of your thoughts and feelings in poetry. Shalom! Rand


Into the cool pond on a sunny day
We have come to the cottage by the sea
I see water and sky and signs of simple living
The kids are playing, Selena is reading, and that is all

Visiting the cottage
Wholeness and peacefulness come to us
Swimming, playing, reading, and that’s all
The only thoughts are of the present

Wholeness and peacefulness come to us
Easily I see the good that is my true self
The only thoughts are of the present
It is not careless apathy for what has been or will be

I see easily the good that is my true self
Capable and sufficient, without guile or envy
Not considering what has been or will be
Things are in their places

Capable and sufficient, without guile or envy
I see water and sky and signs of simple living
Things are in their places
Entering the cool pond on a sunny day

Sunday, November 30, 2014

If Mary were Maasai

Happy Advent: Come, Lord Jesus, come!
For this blog, we are posting an article that our colleague, Corinna ClymerOlson wrote for The Mennonite World Review. It's beautifully written and demonstrates the type of folks we get to work with by being with MCC. Corinna and Doug live in a small village, Najile, in Kajiado County. It's not far, geographically, from Nairobi, but a world apart from us and the experience we have in Nairobi. It's not an easy assignment, but Doug and Corinna have put their hearts, minds, and bodies into their work. 
When I read Luke 2, I don’t need much imagination these days.
ClymerOlson holds the new baby.
ClymerOlson holds the new baby.
It says, “and there were shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night” and I picture my neighbor kids that are always pushing the goats around with their whistling and their engudi (herding stick) on the other side of our fence, or singing at the top of their lungs or arguing with their siblings to pass the time out in the bush. Or, I picture some of the mamas next door. Nalotuesha or Helen out in the bush for the day to watch the cows or goats, her tatteredshuka pulled up over her head because it’s too hot to wear it around her shoulders, her feet white with the dust.
And when I read that Mary rode on a donkey (for hours or days?) on the day before she had her first baby, I picture Nalamai, my neighbor happily bending in half (despite my offering her a stool) for an hour or more to do my laundry by hand out in the backyard just a week before her baby came. She didn’t know when it was coming — just that is would come when it came. I see her lumbering along, her wraps flowing around her lovely, nearly full-term form with her plastic yellow 20-liter jerry can full of water (about five gallons). The strap runs across her forehead then wraps around the girth of the plastic container hanging across her back, the weight falling on her head and neck. She is slightly bent forward with the weight, her hands holding the strap next to her ears.
I picture the herds of donkeys with the black stripe on their necks that we see roaming alone through the bush (rarely do we see them doing much work), meandering across the road in front of our car. We gladly shout “get your ass off the road!” and then giggle. It never gets old. Or maybe it’s us who never grow up.
Then there’s Mary and her nonexistent birth plan. Babies just happen with the Maasai, too. The cows and goats are close. The goat kids and calves are kept inside the hut at night. The hut is made of dung, mud and ash and the birthing takes place in the darkness of the inside — on the low cow-hide shelf that is the bed. No running water, no indoor plumbing, no hot shower. Emergency services are nonexistent here and life and death rest in the hands of God.
My friend Nalamai had her baby on Monday, three days ago. I went to visit to take some food and found everyone excited and eager to take me to the mama. Helen fell into step with me as I approached the manyatta. We exchanged greetings and I pulled out the 200 Kenya Shillings that I owed her for washing my clothes in place of Nalamai the day before. She led me to Nalamai’s hut, I stooped and followed her into the darkness of the inside.
As the happy chatter of Kokoo (grandma), Helen, Nalamai and two other visiting friends, Lois and Paulina, surrounded me, I marveled at this young woman who had just birthed her sixth baby. No one really knows her age, but its somewhere mid-20s and she is strong as an ox, both in body and in spirit. She must have been early teens when she was married as a second wife and started her successful baby-having career. She easily holds favorite wife status with her commanding presence and voice, her beautiful smile and her easy laugh. She’s smart as a whip, bossy, too and doesn’t miss a trick. A pride welled in me to call her my friend, a warmth of affection for this brave and cheerful woman. I hear her interpreting my clumsy words for the others since she’s the one who understands my halting Maa more than anyone because she comes by my house so often.
My eyes quickly adjusted to the darkness of the house interior. The boy baby was tiny, pale skinned with dark curls. He was wrapped in a cotton cloth, no diapers to speak of; a faint smell of urine and baby mixed in my nostrils. His eyes opened briefly, then closed again, not too upset by the change of position as he was passed into my arms. I heard the mama say to her friend, “does she know how?” I have no children so why wouldn’t she ask this question?
They probably have not had the milky tea, a staple, for weeks and maybe over a month. Cows stop producing milk when the grass is completely gone from drought, Even so, they insisted, despite my emphatic protests, on my staying and sharing a tin cup of shai made of the rehydrated powdered milk I had just brought. I poured the hot tea from one cup to the another in the traditional cooling technique, sipping between pours. Sweat dripped slowly down my belly, the warmth of the hut close. The dim light from the 5-inch window hole revealed the beads on Helen’s brow, too. She fanned her shirt. A trail of cockroaches crawled in silhouette along the stick that formed the cup shelf next to the light hole.
As I walked home, I thought of Mary. She didn’t have other mamas or Kokoo around her at her birthing and she was far from home. But, besides that, there was a lot in common between the birth of Jesus and the birth of Nalamai’s baby.
” … And all the shepherds came crowding into the dark little place where the mama and the baby were hanging out with the cows and goats, praising God.” Mesisi Yesu.
Corinna Clymer and her husband, are in the midst of a three-year assignment with Mennonite Central Committee in Najile, Kenya. She blogs at clymerolson.blogspot.com where this post first appeared.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Swahili, Tanzania, and khat-chewing bus drivers

This looks familiar...

We finally stepped off the bus at 8:30 that night in a dark parking lot, crowded with taxi drivers, hawkers, and others whose occupations I didn't want to know. When we retrieved our bags from the belly of the bus, we had completed a 14 hour journey from Arusha almost due south to Iringa town. Parts of the trip were incredibly beautiful – we passed through groves of baobab trees, as if driving through a Dr. Seuss book – and we watched the sun rise (and set!) over a beautiful East African landscape. BUT.

Our seats were booked at the front of the bus – travel tip #1 for those considering a bus ride in Africa – but it was too far up front. First, we could see the driver (more on him in a moment) and secondly, we were between windows, so didn't have one to ourselves. I've discovered that our fellow East Africans do not enjoy the wind blowing through their hair. Or on their skin. Or at all. Which meant that when it got hot (as it is wont to do on an overcrowded bus in the middle of the day) there was no air circulating on that bus. Imagine your last airplane trip: imagine it with less leg room and less air. 
Yep, that was our bus.

Khat or Miraa
Khat is a shrub grown in only certain parts of the north and eastern part of our continent. People who use khat chew the leaves – they must be fresh – and chew/suck on the skinny stems. Khat (miraa in Kiswahili) is not illegal. It’s an accepted stimulant, which is a bit of a mystery to me; however, many say that it doesn’t have any more stimulant effects than coffee. Others dispute that, and argue that it is quite addictive (um, like coffee?) and produces hallucinatory effects for those who use it frequently.
Rand and I noticed that our driver did several things throughout the trip. He drank from a plastic soda bottle containing a light yellowish (really unattractive) liquid. He chewed gum constantly, and he kept a little bag in his lap, from which he would pull one or two small twigs out and suck on them – all the while drinking the soda (?) and chewing the gum. He also drove as to escape a nightmare. He jiggled his legs, he swung his arms (yes, while holding the steering wheel), he looked around wildly, and he did not slow down over speed bumps.

Did I mention that this bus ride was 14 hours? We stopped twice. Once for a minute to refuel (not to find a toilet) and once (once!) for a bathroom break.
Fortunately, we arrived safely. We found a taxi to our “campsite,” which is really a lovely set of cabins, tent-sites, and tented bandas tucked into a forested parcel of land along the Little Ruaha River. We were greeted by Eliud who showed us our little stone home. We took a walk in the cold, starry, silent night, and then finally fell into a delicious sleep.

Mwalimu na mimi (Teacher Joyce and me)
The next morning after breakfast and playful greetings by Bruiser and Polly (the camp dogs) we met Mwalimu (teacher) Joyce who told us that our driver most definitely was chewing khat as he drove us through that lovely country.
We spent the next two weeks learning Swahili…filling our heads with noun classes, verb forms, infixes (we don’t have those in English, do we?), suffixes, and prefixes. Swahili is a beautiful language – full of lyrical sounds and an amazing mix of primarily Arab and Bantu vocabulary and structure. Forget about all the other languages you’ve learned or been exposed to: it does you no good. Joyce was patient, funny, and very opinionated. We learned a lot. We ate a lot, but we were also able to run almost everyday – finding trails, waterfalls, mini canyons, and lots of friendly and willing Tanzanians for us to practice talking to.

One of the days we wandered into Iringa town to hang out in the market, practice our Swahili, and book our bus tickets back to Arusha. (Only after we did a lot of research into buying plane tickets!) Our teacher thought we were crazy when we told her we purchased 3 seats for the two of us: only wazungu (foreigners) have enough money to buy a ticket for a non-existent traveler (thanks for the use of your name, Reid).

We boarded the bus for the trip back to Arusha in hopes that it would be much better. I’ve written enough, so I won’t go into detail about the return. Besides, minus the khat-chewing maniacal driver, it was still a 14-hour bus ride through beautiful Tanzania. But this time we did see elephants.
The market in Iringa town
The Little Ruaha River -- near one of the trails we were able to run. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Ol Pejeta!

We had a great summer (winter for us here below the Equator) with lots of great adventure and travels. (We'll do another post about mine and Rand's 15 hour bus trip to the south of Tanzania for language study with our khat-chewing, maniacal bus driver.) 

The kids were separated from us for way too long -- but they came home in late July with Rand’s parents and we had a grand time going on a safari to Ol Pejeta Conservancy. It’s a model of private wildlife conservation and indigenous herd management. Here are just a few of the amazing animals we saw...We got a new camera in June and it was so fun experimenting. We are grateful to be in such a beautiful country. Let us know when you're ready for your safari...

Elephants at a watering hole just near our camp -- check out week-old baby trying to figure out how to use her trunk
Cape Buffalo baby and mom

We always think of a sweet little girl when we see zebras, especially young ones
Lilac breasted roller

Grey crowned crane - you can see that this is also just near our camp
I. love. warthogs.

This little guy is showing us his ears -- proving how threatening he can be 
What a place for us to celebrate Nana's birthday...

Our first tented camp
Bushbucks -- so fuzzy
And then there were these guys...

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Planning, budgets, programs...some of the work we (and MCC) do in Kenya

As we have been quiet on our blog these last couple of months, I thought I’d give you some idea of what we’ve been up to. We just emerged from a heavy season of planning and preparation for the new fiscal year that began in April. During December, January, and February, Rand and I have been involved in budget development and proposal writing, reviewing, editing and finalizing for MCC’s work in Kenya. We have done a lot of this on our own, and much of it with input from program specialists with MCC in Canada and the US. Most of the proposals that we support have a three year duration, so developing them is not a small task for our partners who implement them.

MCC’s method of working in most countries and areas is by partnering with established organizations, or partners. In other words, typically MCC would not come into a community and say, “You need a well, and we will fund it. “ Rather MCC’s partners are organizations who are already at work in MCC’s strategic and geographic areas of interest and share MCC values.

In Kenya our areas of focus are food security/agriculture/water, health (including HIV/AIDS prevention), education, disaster relief, and peace-building.  The majority of our money is spent on water/ag/food security.  All of our partners use methods and techniques that are unique to their environments, populations, and particular needs; no two programs look alike.
A Self Help Group building a sand dam in the Ukambani region of Kenya.
In the food security/ag/water sector, our partners build sand dams, implement various methods of water harvesting, tree planting, and conservation agriculture. I realize as I write this how new these terms are to me. Even food security, a term I’ve been familiar with and involved in for years, takes on greater meaning in sub-Saharan Africa. 

A sand dam with water flowing over it. In the dry season
the water stored in this dam will be crucial for crops,
livestock, and people in the area. 
Our health work primarily consists of funding HIV/AIDS prevention programs through the Kenya Mennonite Church, but also with a Presbyterian organization in Ewuaso, a rural Maasai community. AIDS is a concern globally, of course, and the task of educating and empowering youth and young adults to make healthy choices is important in slowing transmission. Additionally, certain cultural practices in some communities make the task even more urgent and difficult. We work with strong community leaders who are motivated to educate folks about the risks of unwise health decisions and the role of traditional cultural practices in spread of HIV. This is not easy work, nor is community behavior change easy. At times, this work takes on an added dimension to me as I see some of these men who are leaders in their communities and who have become meaningful spokespeople in explaining the dangers of gender-based violence and why the church should be leading the discussions in these issues.

Bottles laid out to sterilize in the sun at Menno Kids Academy. Each student and
teacher has his or her own bottle that is laid out each day. 
WASH (or Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) is an important focus area; for the majority of Kenyans, clean water is nothing to take for granted. Several of our partner schools implement programs in their schools and surrounding communities.

We also support several schools through MCC’s Global Family Fund. We partner with schools and organizations in our country that face incredible challenges – they strive to provide quality education to vulnerable kids and provide them a loving, stable environment. Visiting these schools and seeing the tireless work of the teachers is amazing. We have also been fortunate to have a young, bright service worker (i.e., MCC volunteer) work with these schools. 
The kids at Mukuru Menno Academy holding up their water
bottles after sitting in the sun (the SODIS method is part of our WASH
programs at the schools. Clean water is not to be taken for granted here.

I realize that climate change is a controversial term in the US, fraught with highly politicized factions. That is not the case here: it is a hard reality that millions of people in this region of Africa deal with on a daily basis. It has changed the rains, the water availability, the crops, livestock breeding patterns – almost everything. The increasing number of droughts has required that we work with our partners to provide relief and food aid. There are various ways we do this, and we know that at some point in our term, we will face another serious season of food shortages. We fortunately have seen good rains over the last month – albeit strange, as they started in February, rather than March. We hope that crops will grow and produce well this season.

Two participants engaged in the "river of life" exercise during the Justice
that Heals Learning Community, led by MCC partner DiPaD.
Kenya has a long history of inter-tribal violence and border disputes, often escalating around elections. Although the past election, a year ago, passed without overt violence, there are still tensions that many Kenyans feel. MCC supports organizations that work in this area. We are also excited about a new program that starts in April in Eastleigh, the neighbourhood in Nairobi where most of the city’s Somali immigrants and refugees live.

The tasks of developing a budget (and you will be relieved to know that Rand does most of that!) and revising and editing plans can feel a bit cold and disconnected from the workers in the communities. At the same time, it gives us the opportunity to see the hard work that our partners put into providing services for the people they serve. We really are amazed at what can happen in these communities with limited resources and less than ideal circumstances. For those of you who give to MCC, thank you, and please know that we really do work hard to ensure the money is spent wisely and with kindness and compassion. https://donate.mcc.org/

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Mom and Dad came to Africa...

What a visit. Before Mom and Dad left, I quizzed them, the kids, and Rand on what their favourite memories were so that I could write a good blog post. It was great hearing all of their memories and reliving what a great time we had. They have been gone for not even a week -- we are slowly getting back into the routine of school and work, but we still miss them. I haven't written anything yet... like all of you, we get bogged down in the details of life and school and work (budget planning time for MCC!). My parents sent out an email to a bunch of their friends, and I decided that I should just use their email summary -- see below. I'll just add one story that sums up their attitude for the whole time they were here:

We were on the way to an isolated village where two of our service workers live, Najile, Kajiado County West. It's not far (distance-wise) but a world away from Nairobi, through the bush of the Rift Valley. We had been bumping along, all crammed in our truck for about two hours when Sam asks, "How much longer do we have?" Before I could provide a soothing parental answer, my dad calls out, "Who cares? This is GREAT!"

Mom and Dad's note to friends:
"We are safely home (since January 18th) from our adventure in Kenya; thank you for all your prayers while we were there!  I thought we'd just finish our account of activities there and attach a few pictures.
We toured several parks where we saw lions, hippos, rhinos, warthogs, giraffes, monkeys, lots of pretty birds, elands, gazelles and African buffaloes.. up pretty close.  I've not sent those pictures because you know what they look like.  Zebras are seen along the roadside like cows in the US - no big deal about them!
Nairobi is a very modern city, but I attached a picture of a more "slum" area.  Other pictures (in no particular order) are of the Rosslyn  Academy where the kids go to school, a Maasai woman with Selena and Reid (she's one of 3 wives).  There is one of us being presented jewellery by the Maasai family we dined with, all of us at our "banda" (camping cabin) and another of us at Hell's Gate Cave, another of us at Karen (the "Out of Africa" estate near Nairobi).
We visited a Giraffe Park (hence the two pictures...note my "kissing" the Giraffe)!  We went to a baby elephant orphanage and adopted "Suswa" for grandson Pierce.  Their keepers are with them 24 hours - sleep with them, as well.
We visited a tea plantation, several mission sites where Rand and Selena have projects...orphanages, schools, community projects, etc.  Highlight for us was meeting so many interesting people from all over who are in Kenya on some sort of mission. 
Kenyans are warm, very religious people, (who drive like maniacs).  There are armed guards everywhere - everything is behind gates (beautiful ones, too).  Sam & Reid are adapting well and Rand and Selena love their job.  They have a really nice apartment in the city with most conveniences.  We had a wonderful time with them (didn't seem to overstay!) and are so thankful for the privilege we had of going."






Thursday, December 5, 2013

Aunt Kay

Friday is my Aunt Kay’s birthday. She would have been 73. Kay died on October 9th from metastatic breast cancer, just a few weeks after we moved to Nairobi. We missed the memorial service ~ that was really hard. This is the first time I have grieved at a distance from my family and friends, but I am so grateful to my dad, my  mom, and my sister, along with Kay's incredible friends, who were with Kay in those final weeks. Below are some rambling thoughts on Kay ~ some came from the obituary that friends and family wrote. Thanks for reading and honouring my aunt’s memory with me.

‘It reflects on your other commitments as well. Will you be able to stay married? What kind of a friend are you?’ My aunt Kay said this to me when I was 20 and contemplating taking a year off from college. That summer I was working in DC for my congressman (does anyone else in South Carolina miss John Spratt?) and it seemed like I had some growing up to do. So I told Kay that: maybe I should take a year off and grow up some. Her reply was something like, ‘Learning how to stick to something when it’s really hard is part of growing up.’

I was reared by wonderful parents who were active church members, with morals and values grounded in Biblical stories and their faith. Our home was a small town in South Carolina where a huge Air Force base was an influential part of our community. Kay, my dad’s older sister, was quite different from almost all of the other women I knew as a child. Although she only lived 45 miles away in Columbia, at times her world seemed radically different than mine.

Kay was a feminist and a committed and vocal member of the Democratic Party and League of Women Voters. She was a sophisticated conversationalist, particularly about South Carolina politics. No matter how frustrated she could get with our state, she remained fiercely loyal to South Carolina, and to its University, where she worked for so many years. She wasn’t always easy to deal with. She was opinionated, well read, and could be sarcastic and unkind toward others’ opinions that differed substantially from hers.  Kay never married, sometimes she lived alone; for a while she had a long-time roommate (as an adult! how cool!), she always had a cat, great art hung on her walls, and had lived and travelled all over the world. She was deeply committed to the local art scene in Columbia. Many of these characteristics made her the kind of woman who was not only unusual in small towns of the Deep South in the 1970’s and 80’s; to me she was almost exotic.

Kay valued intellectual curiosity and perseverance ~ hence her strong reservations about my wanting to quit college for a year. The value she placed on those two things could often make it difficult for us to get along. I always loved to read (one of the characteristics we had in common), but I wasn’t classically smart ~ I didn’t have good grades, and I had a hard time dedicating the kind of time good grades required. However, we both shared a love of theatre, and because of her I was able to see some of South Carolina’s best live theatre. She loved that I was active in the Sumter Little Theatre, and it was important to me that we shared that passion.

Kay was a serious lover of cats, and spent much of her energy caring for a long line of quirky and insistent animals. She loved and appreciated classical music, theatre, opera; she shared this love with all of us.  She generously and consistently supported the arts in Columbia and Charleston. Kay’s sense of style was to be envied, and it was demonstrated in her clothes, the art on her walls, and in her home. Kay was a mean card player, and spent much of her time around a Bridge table with a loyal group of players. She made sure each of us had a sixpence on our wedding day. Kay was a willing playmate with little ones; she could be silly and tease playfully and make up funny nicknames. Kay hated to be woken up early, especially on Christmas mornings by over-eager nieces.

Kay was private about dealing with her cancer. I’m pretty sure she told my sister and parents a bit more, but with me it was pretty much on a need-to-know-basis. We talked about it over the years, but I think she kept a lot of the pain to herself. She had a dedicated circle of friends, made up of old and new, male and female, conservatives and liberal thinkers….really quite amazing to me. They supported her during her various bouts with cancer, and then supported my dad and Mandy when they were in Columbia during her final weeks.

We miss Kay and I know with Christmas approaching (a holiday we usually spent with her), it will be more acute. My kids and I will miss her silly and unique presents, the English crackers, delicious German wine, good bread, and pimiento cheese from The Gourmet Shop in Columbia.

For many people Christmas and the holidays can be really hard. I love the Quaker way of saying they remember one another in prayer: "I will hold you in the Light." I hope each of us has someone who holds us in the Light this season ~ it is a bitter and sweet time for many.   

Kay wearing one of the crowns from the English crackers that she brought us every Christmas.